Jazz Birthdays: Herb Jeffries (1913) and Theodore “Fats” Navarro (1923)

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Herb Jeffries, as entrepreneur, helped initiate the singing cowboy movie with an all-black cast produced for black audiences. He also owned jazz clubs in France. After singing in several big bands, Herb Jeffries broke into motion pictures in 1937 in the race film “Harlem on the Prairie”. He became a singing cowboy, known for “The Bronze Buckaroo”. Jeffries has said “My ultimate reward is Denzel Washington. He can play a submarine commander or a policeman or whatever. I’m one of the guys who made that possible, by some trick of fate.” His jazz breakthrough occurred between 1940 and 1942 in a stint with Duke Ellington in which he sang a big hit “Flamingo”. In the video of “Baby, Won’t You Please Come Home,” he’s accompanied by Marshall Royal on clarinet and Ruby Braff on cornet, among others. The Jeffries’ voice and style are smooth, deep, comforting and reassuring while being masculine. Other singers in this vein are Billy Eckstine, Johnny Hartman, and Arthur Prysock.

Trumpeter Fats Navarro gives great pleasure to our ears even today. He was a remarkable musician who was highly proficient on his horn and in improvising on the complex and new chord progressions of bop. Fats contributed to the cumulative innovation in jazz. Having thoroughly absorbed the bebop innovations of Bird and Diz, he brought his own creative talent to bear. Although heavily influenced by Diz, Fats progressed to his own style. He smoothed out the lines, extended them, relaxed the tempos, added chromatic passing notes and triplets and melodic intervals while negotiating the chord changes, and he made less use of the upper register. He moved into hard bop before hard bop came in, and he clearly influenced such players as Clifford Brown and Lee Morgan. As an example, I’ve chosen the tune “Nostalgia”. After an 8-bar intro the tune starts. At that point, you may sing along with the tune “Out of Nowhere” (by Johnny Green) and you will capture the chord structure of this song.

4:16 am on September 24, 2012